The U.S. Capitol may be the most easily parodied symbol of America. It is a gift to cartoonists, who can use the dome to symbolize graft, foolishness, hot air, scandal, self-seeking—everything, in fact, that can go wrong with a democratically elected legislature. In the past few years, though, all that has changed utterly, and not, of course, because of any decline in the amount of foolishness spoken therein, but in the fact that the building stands at all. These days, whenever I see the Capitol—and now I really do see it in ways I never have before—I know that I am looking at one of the most powerful lessons ever written on the nature of American government. To see the Capitol is to see material proof that the American people came first, before the government, and before the nation itself.
It all comes down to a matter of 15 minutes. Thanks to the commission that reported this past summer on the attacks of September 11, 2001, we now know much more about that day and, above all, about the epic of United Flight 93. The story is familiar enough. A group of vermin hijacked the aircraft, murdering some of the crew and passengers, and then directed the flight to Washington. It is morally certain that their target was the Capitol, since the principal plot organizer has admitted as much. Knowing roughly what the terrorists intended, the surviving passengers attacked their captors, overwhelming one thug, and then storming the cockpit door, using an airline food cart as a battering ram. Realizing they were about to lose control of the aircraft, the terrorists crashed the plane into a remote area near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, killing everyone on board.
So much has been known for three years, but now we have two more critical pieces of information. First, we know how very close the enemy came to achieving their objective. The airliner crashed at 10:03 A.M., with between 10 and 20 minutes separating them from the Capitol. Let’s split the difference and assume it was 15 minutes. Around 10:18 A.M., the aircraft would have smashed into the Capitol. News crews, ordered to evacuate the area, were waiting nearby, the cameramen told that on no account should they take their lenses off the building in what were presumed to be its last minutes of existence. Physical devastation apart, the enormous moral shock of September 11 would have been compounded beyond imagination.
And that brings us to the second piece of new information. The United States defends herself with a great deal of high-tech weaponry. On September 11, though, virtually none of that was remotely near ready or available for use. Aircraft summoned to defend Washington were careful not to break the speed limit, lest windows be broken and citizens agitated. Meanwhile, fighters that were in reach of the city were under strict orders not to intercept hijacked flights without direct authorization from the highest command. That, in practice, meant Vice President Dick Cheney, who did his job superbly in an impossible situation, though never sure when or whether his orders were finding their way to their intended recipients. And Cheney’s order permitting airliners to be shot down reached the fighters no earlier than 10:31 A.M. If matters had gone very slightly differently, the orders might have been received just as the pilots were circling the billowing flames emerging from the Capitol dome, after it had smashed down to destroy the building below. All of which is to say that the passengers of Flight 93 saved the Capitol, at a moment when all the President’s aircraft and all the President’s men did not stand a chance of doing so.
The way they acted sounds like an unlikely civics lesson from the most heroic days of the Revolutionary War. Knowing they had no one to depend on but themselves, the passengers returned to the most basic principles of Anglo-American popular democracy. Despite the desperate circumstances, they took a vote on possible courses of action and then formed what can only be termed an unorganized militia. From their phone calls, we know some of the reasons motivating them, and they were beyond what the most far-fetched superpatriotic scriptwriter might have devised. The words of Todd Beamer have entered history: “Are you guys ready? Let’s roll.” Other remarks, however, deserve to be remembered no less. Passenger Tom Burnett told his wife, “If they’re going to crash the plane into the ground, we have to do something. We can’t wait for the authorities. We have to do something now.” The last words of flight attendant Sandy Bradshaw to her husband were: “Everyone’s running to first class. I’ve got to go. Bye.” Mark Bingham, Jeremy Glick: Every surviving word from these heroes deserves to become an American legend.
We can’t wait for the authorities. They have multimillion-dollar F-15’s, and we have—a food cart. And the fate of the Capitol depended on as tough and dedicated a fighting unit as the nation has ever produced. The salesmen, the corporate honchos, the rugby player . . . and Sandy Bradshaw in the galley boiling pots of good hot water to throw in terrorists’ faces. Not long ago in these pages, H.A. Scott Trask wondered whether the U.S. Army in these degenerate modern days was indeed the lineal descendant of its Continental predecessors in the 1770’s. I am happy to tell him that that spirit is very much alive in our time. The Capitol stands because of what the people did, the people who existed before the government, who made the government.
Everyone should visit the site of the crash at Shanksville, a beautiful, tranquil place. You need very little imagination to think that the spirits of Sandy Bradshaw and the rest still haunt the site. The ghosts are serene, triumphant, and about 60-feet tall.